It wasn't just the hearing of voices that made everyone think Stefi was weird. And it wasn't just the way she often disappeared into the forest for hours on end; not that those things helped at all. Most of all it was the ferrets; slinky little creatures that resembled the end result of a particularly amorous liaison between a snake and a cat. If people were in any doubt about what to make of her before, her company with those creatures certainly helped them make up their minds. But they also made sure that even she thought there was something strange about her.
The mid-afternoon sunshine played about Stefi's feet as she followed the track through the Sumarana forest, while a breeze tugged playfully at her mid-length black hair. She often came here into the forest near her home to relax, called by the voices of the woods and laughing of the streams. She loved the way the trees seemed to whisper to her in strange languages and the peaceful solitude this place offered her as a respite from the troubles of home.
Stefi found that the further she went into the forest, the more in touch with the world around her she became. The greens of the leaves seemed to come alive and the music of the birds became a sweet symphony that swirled around her ears. And sometimes, but only sometimes, she thought she could hear snatches of voices in the forest. Mind you, no one else did, and telling others only led to polite smiles veiling concern or laughter.
But, admittedly, the voices were her favourite thing about the forest, sharing a place in her heart with the playful, meandering mountain stream she visited almost daily.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, filling her head with the intoxicating scent of early spring wildflowers and last autumn's leaves before continuing down the path she had worn here from her frequent trips. At this time of year, as the days grew warmer and longer, the melting snow from the nearby Sumarana mountains flowed into many small streams that wandered throughout the countryside like excited children.
She knelt down beside one such stream and caught her eyes staring back from liquid mirror, two orbs of shattered crystal reflecting the stream reflecting the sky, reflections into infinity. She dipped her cupped hands into the ice-water, shattering the mirror's surface, and took a drink. A second time she scooped up a handful and this time splashed it across her face.
It was when she dipped her hands in for a third time that she noticed a small, brown sack lying on the bank downstream from where she was sitting. She lifted her hands from the water, all the while keeping her eyes trained on the sack. The water trickled through her fingers with the same ease that a fading memory trickles through one's grasp.
The sack jerked suddenly in a small spasm and was still again just as quickly.
'What the?' Stefi murmured to herself and cautiously climbed to her feet. She picked her way over to the sack and, ducking under the overhanging branches, stooped beside it. She poked it cautiously with a stick.
Something soft squirmed inside and let out a scared hissing sound before settling down again. It was then Stefi noticed that the sack was tied shut, choked with a thick cord. Her stomach lurched as she realised someone had deliberately abandoned whatever it was. Being the kind and compassionate person she was, she couldn't understand how anyone could abandon any living creature like this. Even if it did make strange hissing noises.
'Is…is someone in there?' she asked curiously and prodded the sack again. It lurched once more, only more violently and this time it let out some very angry chattering sounds.
'Hold on,' she reassured and grasped the cord, fumbling with the knot as she tried to open the sack. The knot was tied impossibly tight; evidently whoever had tied it didn't want the sack's contents to escape. In desperation she yanked at the cord, ignoring the pain as it dug into her hands.
With a sudden snap it gave in to her frantic pulling, sending the sack tumbling a short distance. She looked at her fingers and winced at the red marks now branded on her skin as she flexed her sore fingers.
'Hey, come on out,' she whispered, kneeling beside the sack and forgetting the pain.
Slowly but surely, a tiny whiskered nose poked itself out into the air, sniffing and probing at its new found freedom. A small brown face followed. Its scared looking eyes peered out from a black mask as it surveyed the world beyond its prison.
'Isn't that a weasel?' Stefi thought and peered closely at the odd furry creature before her.
The "weasel" caught sight of her and leapt from the sack with a shrill shriek and puffed up its tail like a crazy brush. It bared its teeth in an angry grin and trained its inky black eyes on hers, never leaving them for a second as it scuttled backwards. Inside those eyes Stefi saw not anger and hostility, but true fear and apprehension. And deeper inside still she saw something even more unexpected; an unnerving degree of intelligence staring back from the depths, almost as if the animal was surveying her.
Stefi got down on all fours and spoke gently to try and calm the frightened animal.
'It's okay little weasel, I'm here to help you.'
The animal relaxed and the invisible supports in its tail seemed to melt away.
I'm not a weasel! an angry voice seemed to scream at her, seeming to come out of nowhere and everywhere at once.
Stefi let out a frightened gasp and stood up, looking everywhere around her; up in the treetops, behind the trees and even in the stream itself, trying to find just where the voice had come from. Everywhere, that is, except for the small creature before her.
'Who's there?' she called out into the forest. Her voice echoed forlornly amongst the trees. As hard as she tried, she couldn't control the wavering in her voice.
It's me! The voice yelled at her again. The ferret!
'The ferr…oh. You?' She crouched down in front of the furry animal.
Yes, me, and I'm not a weasel. I'm a ferret! it said angrily. Its voice seemed to come from within her head, echoing amongst her own thoughts. Stefi worked her mouth noiselessly for a few seconds before being able to get the words off her tongue.
'But you're talking and your mouth isn't moving! Am I dreaming?' She pinched her arm tightly to try and wake herself up, her nails leaving small marks in the flesh.
Of course you're not dreaming! Oh yeah, and thanks for saving us too.
'Us? You mean you're not the only one?'
The ferret seemed to let out a sigh and stuck its head back into the sack. After a few seconds of wuffling sounds from inside, a female ferret timidly crawled out into the light.
Are…are we free now? It asked its companion, its voice trembling. She also appeared to wear a mask, but she was slightly smaller and lighter in colour. Stefi could tell from her voice that perhaps this ferret wasn't as pushy. Without waiting for an answer, the male rubbed up against his friend and nuzzled her affectionately, all the while making little dooking noises.
'Are you two alright now?' Stefi asked.
The female saw Stefi and flattened herself against the ground in shock.
It's okay, reassured the male. She saved us.
But she still lay hugging the ground, trying to melt away into the dirt and leaves. The breeze ruffled through her brown fur and she shuddered.
Stefi, taking pity on the small shaking ferret, scooped her up in her arms and held her tightly against her chest.
'Don't be scared,' Stefi said. 'You're alright now. My name's Stefi. What's yours?'
Ge-Gemmie, the scared bundle's voice squeaked in her head. Are you here to help us?
'Of course,' Stefi replied, running her fingers through Gemmie's down-like fur. 'So who's your little friend?'
That's Maya, she told Stefi. But how can you understand us?
'I really don't know,' Stefi sighed and shook her head. 'I just found out I could then. Maybe I'm just weird…'
You got that right! Maya shouted, glaring up at her.
Gemmie snuggled closer to Stefi and nuzzled her face. Never mind him, her gentle voice whispered in her head, he can be like that sometimes.
Stefi smiled. 'I noticed. So where are you two buggers from?'
Deep inside she already knew they wouldn't want to answer, not after having apparently been abandoned by their previous owners and left for dead.
I don't know where it was... Gemmie hesitated for a minute. But Maya and me were the only ferrets there. One minute we were outside having a sleep in some nice warm grass and the next we were thrown in a sack. Then later you came along.
'Hmm,' Stefi murmured thoughtfully and closed her eyes. 'How about you two come and live with me? I'll take good care of you.' Stefi had always wanted to have pets although her mother didn't allow it. They'd once had a dog, but he and Stefi's mum's allergies didn't agree. He was gone within a month.
Maya shot her an angry look. What about the last person who said that? he demanded rudely.
'I bet they couldn't understand ferrets like me. Besides, I love you lot already. Even you, Mr. Attitude!'
Dooking to herself, Gemmie pushed her face against Stefi's cheek in a ferret kiss.
'I guess it's settled then?' Stefi said and giggled, unable to say no to Gemmie's instantaneous display of trust and affection.
With Gemmie cradled in her arms, she got up and began walking back down the dirt path towards home.
What about me! Maya yelled out as he stood, shocked, in the middle of the path.
'You're coming too,' said Stefi as she flashed a grin over her shoulder. 'Even if you are a little annoying!'
Maya scowled and slinked along behind Stefi, down the old dirt track back towards Sumarana, towards a new life.
When Stefi arrived home she quietly ushered the ferrets into her room and slid shut the bolt on the door. Once she was sure no one was around she let out a pent up sigh of relief and collapsed on the small single bed in the corner of her room. The rusted bedsprings groaned despite her small frame.
She placed Gemmie and Maya on the soft blankets and lay down beside them.
'Welcome to your new home,' she said and swept her arm before her. 'I suppose you two can sleep up here with me, just as long as you don't shed everywhere!'
Maya glared up at her. We ferrets are very clean thank you! he said. And also rather cute if, I may say so myself.
'I won't argue with that,' Stefi said and smiled. 'I just hope my mum agrees with me and lets you stay, that's all.'
And what if she says no? Gemmie asked with a shaky voice, if you could really call it a voice.
'She won't,' Stefi reassured. 'Not if I have anything to do with it.'
Maya leapt nimbly off the bed and walked slowly around the room, surveying his new territory and taking in all the new smells as if he already owned the place.
Stefi's room was almost bare except for her bed in one corner and a large chest of drawers opposite. It wasn't a very large room, but she didn't mind. She preferred the outdoors anyway, or helping to teach the younger children at Sumarana's large wooden schoolhouse; this was simply a place to sleep and now to play with her ferrets. Anyway, the ferrets seemed happy enough with it.
Once he had completed his survey, Maya came back over to the bed. But when he tried to climb back up he realised it was too high to simply jump. He stood up on his back legs and tried to hoist himself up unsuccessfully, only managing to scrabble his front paws on the blanket.
'You want help there?' Stefi asked and lifted him up without waiting for an answer.
It was the second of many times Stefi would help out the ferrets, but one day they hoped to return the favour.
As it turned out, Stefi's mother allowed her to keep the two ferrets, although she herself wasn't very fond of them. But she figured they would at least keep Stefi's mind off boys for a while.
The three of them got along as if they'd known each other for more than the one year that they had. It was a spring evening, when the nights were still cold with winter's chill -the anniversary of when they'd first met- that Gemmie and Maya first started acting strangely.
Stefi? Gemmie squeaked as they sat on the back steps outside Stefi's room, watching the sun set on the whole year that they'd been together.
'What's up, Gem?' Stefi asked and looked at her round face with some concern. Although a timid ferret, Gemmie had learned to open up to Stefi. The same could hardly be said about Maya. But it wasn't very often Gemmie spoke with that tone of voice; a cross between fright and nervousness mixed with a small squeak. It was when she talked like this that Stefi began to worry.
I… said Gemmie, I feel something strange is going to happen. I don't know what it is but lately I've had some really strange feelings, like someone is looking for us.
'Looking for you?' Stefi repeated. 'What do you mean by that? Your old owners?'
No, Maya interrupted, not our old owners. I've been feeling it too. It's like something wants to find us.
'You never know,' Stefi said. 'It could be your old owners.'
After they dumped us? Maya replied rudely. I don't think so.
Gemmie clambered up Stefi until she was almost eye-to-eye with her. It feels like something dark… Stefi shuddered.
The ferrets of Feregana were deeply in touch with the world itself, Stefi had heard, almost one with it and nature. Along with the Feretos, mysterious and reclusive part human, part ferret beings, they were said to look after the planet as if they had sprung forth from the very earth at the beginning of time. Unlike ferrets though, the humans regarded the Feretos as mortal enemies, different creatures that had to be persecuted because they were just that. Different.
The Feretos of Western Feregana, where Stefi lived, remained hidden deep within the continent's forests away from humans where they could go about their own affairs as one with nature and carry out their lives undisturbed. No one had seen a Feretos in Western Feregana for a very long time and that was just the way the Feretos liked it. The humans couldn't bother them and they didn't become involved in the affairs of humans.
Stefi awoke early the next morning -earlier than normal, in fact- to a small, wet ferret nose nuzzling and poking at her face. She pushed the last remnants of sleep away and eased open her eyes to the new morning. There, almost sitting on her face, was Gemmie.
Stefi sat up, yawned, and stretched lazily in the early morning sunlight that cascaded through her window.
'What is it Gemmie girl?' she murmured as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
I'm scared, Gemmie said and shivered even though it wasn't cold.
'Did you have a bad dream?'
No. That feeling I told you about yesterday, it's getting stronger. I'm really scared something bad is going to happen.
'Aww,' said Stefi and lifted Gemmie up in a big hug. 'You're safe here with me.'
No! the ferret shouted in her head. We're not safe here. We have to go!
'Well, what does Maya think?' Stefi asked. 'Is he feeling bad too?'
Maybe Gemmie was just spooked by a bad dream, she thought to herself. But she sounded so serious, and Stefi had never seen her ferret this scared since she'd found her.
I haven't seen him all morning.
Stefi immediately threw the blankets off her bed and jumped onto the wooden floor, wincing at the sudden coldness on her feet. Normally Maya slept with her and Gemmie on the bed, but this morning his usual spot was empty except for a few stray black and brown hairs lying in the rumpled blankets.
'Maya?' Stefi called out. 'Maya?'
She stumbled around the room, still half asleep. She looked under the bed, beneath the blankets and even behind the drawers where he and Gemmie liked to hide any ill-gotten loot. Nothing.
She let out a frustrated sigh and quickly changed.
'Do you think he'd have gone outside?' she absently asked Gemmie.
He might have, but I don't know… she said and trailed off.
'Well, we'd better go look.'
As if on some sort of invisible leash, Gemmie followed Stefi into the kitchen of the small house and over to the front door. Without bothering to tie the laces, Stefi slipped her boots onto her feet and opened the front door.
Just like every other day at that time, Sumarana lay empty like a ghost town. The dirt road snaking its way through the middle of town and on towards the mountains was completely empty; no foot traffic or dirriwan drawn carts were anywhere to be seen. Stefi glanced up and down the road but could see no sign of her missing Maya.
'Maya?' she called out into the empty street. The only reply was her echo and the gentle morning breeze whistling through her hair. In despair she dropped down onto the concrete steps and hung her head in her hands.
Gemmie clambered up to Stefi's shoulder and rubbed against her head to comfort her, all the while making dooking noises tainted with sadness.
Hey, what's that? Gemmie said suddenly and leapt to the ground.
'What?' murmured Stefi and sniffed. She'd been trying hard not to cry but a few tears had still forced their way from her eyes.
There's something coming along the road! Gemmie said. It looks like Maya! She began to leap, her back arched and head waving as if she was gripped by a seizure. Many people misunderstood Stefi's ferrets' displays of happiness as a sign of aggression, but their was no hostility in their dances. Only sheer glee.
'It is Maya!' Stefi yelped and jumped to her feet. Indeed, a small brown object was moving up the road towards them, slightly bobbing up and down as it ran. Stefi sprinted across the hard packed dirt towards Maya, with Gemmie bobbing along behind before overtaking her, kicking up tiny spurts of dust with her ferret feet. Both ferrets and their owner skidded to a halt in front of the dirriwan stables.
'Maya!' Stefi said, more relieved than angry. 'Where the heck have you been?'
Breathing rapidly and tail puffed, Maya crawled over to Stefi as she knelt down in the dirt. Inside the stable a few agitated dirriwan let out their shrill 'Pee-wok' cries before settling down again. The large birds weren't used to being disturbed this early in the morning.
Stefi, said Maya seriously. Danger. Coming. They're after us.
'Who's after who? What's the danger?' she asked.
Wait! Gemmie interrupted and stared blankly off into space. I feel it too.
'What do you feel?' Stefi asked again.
It's Carick, Maya said solemnly.
'Carick?' Stefi repeated. The name provoked fear from deep down within her consciousness. 'You mean the one from that old war? Where the Feretos and humans got along? The one we aren't supposed to talk about?'
Yes, Carick, spat Maya disgustedly. I feel him looking for us.
Maya looked really scared, despite his best efforts, just like Gemmie had earlier on. At that moment Stefi decided something was going on. Something bad. Maya wouldn't even say where he'd been.
'Okay, maybe not your old owners then,' she conceded. 'But how exactly do you know that someone's coming after you?'
I heard the Feretos calling. Their lands are falling to Carick and the humans. It's the Feretos and ferrets he wants. There isn't much time.
'Carick and humans? But why? What the heck's going on?'
I don't know. We need to find the Feretos. They can help us.
'Where are they then?'
I have no idea. Maya sighed.
'Neither do I,' said Stefi miserably. No-one knew for sure where exactly the Western Feretos lived or if they were even still alive. Rumour spoke of small villages within the Sumarana forest, but nothing had ever been truly found.
'Okay,' she said. 'We'll go look for them. But they could be anywhere!' She threw up her arms in despair.
Then without waiting for a reply she turned around and headed back towards her house with Gemmie and Maya trailing along behind her, their shadows stretching out into the dust.
When she got home she ate her breakfast in silence, stirring her food with her spoon and not really eating it. All she could think about was what Maya had said: We need to find the Feretos. They can help us.
Finding the Feretos was a daunting enough task on its own. But how would she get them to co-operate with her? Maybe they'd kill her? Imprison her? Enslave her? Were they nice or barbaric? She couldn't be sure. But Maya had seemed so insistent on finding them. Lately the ferrets had been acting strangely, perhaps as a result of this Carick. Stefi didn't know much of him herself, only that his name wasn't to be mentioned and that he was responsible for the wastelands of World's End.
She muttered a word of thanks and pushed her bowl towards her mother.
'You didn't eat much,' her mother, Rayna, said with concern. A look of worry marred her face. 'What's wrong?'
'Nothing's wrong, mummy,' she said quietly, almost like a child. 'I suppose I'm just tired, that's all.'
She got up from her chair and shuffled off to her room without waiting for her mother to ask any more questions.
Why is it me that has to go? she thought to herself. Is it fate? My destiny? That stuff's all a load of crap, anyway. Whatever it was, she knew it was up to her to track down the Feretos and find out what was happening to Feregana. But the decision to leave wasn't as difficult as she'd hoped.
Sighing, she sat down on her bed and shoved the blankets aside. This talk of Carick and wars on ferrets and Feretos had her tired out already, and it was still only morning. She still wasn't entirely sure about what Maya had said but what he had had scared her.
'How could he hear the Feretos' voices?' she muttered aloud. 'Well, the ferrets are meant to be in touch with nature. Maybe he picked up on them that way?'
She sprawled out across her bed and lay there, staring at the ceiling with thoughts running through her head.
What's wrong, Stefi? squeaked a tiny voice in her head. Without looking around she knew it was Gemmie.
'Everything, Gem,' she said miserably. 'Something's going on and we need to find the Feretos to find out what. Maya seems really worked up that you guys are in danger.'
I feel something too, said Gemmie. But not as much as Maya.
Stefi stayed lying there and followed the cracks in the ceiling with her eyes. Perhaps her path to the Feretos would be like them. Meandering aimlessly across the country side, sometimes running into dead ends or having to choose between paths. Maybe she'd even meet some nice Feretos and become friends while helping to bridge the gap between her kind and theirs.
With this reassuring thought, she got up and walked over to her drawers.
What are you doing now? Gemmie asked and followed her.
'Packing. We're leaving now.'
To find the Feretos?
'Of course.' She picked up an old pack from beside the drawers and put in some extra clothes and a blanket. Next she made her way into the kitchen and took a small bottle from the cupboard under the sink and filled it with water. She got a loaf of bread and a small packet of ferret biscuits too and added them to her pack, which was by now quite heavy. Then she grabbed a large knife from the bench and slipped it into her belt. Groaning from the effort, she hoisted her pack onto her back and struggled under its weight until she gained her balance.
'At least it'll be good exercise,' she said to herself and managed a smile.
'Gem! Maya!' she called out.
Gemmie came shuffling from Stefi's room and Maya slinked guiltily from behind the kitchen cupboards.
'What were you doing there?' asked Stefi sternly and planted her hands on her hips.
Just checking my stashes, he said quietly. I had the feeling we'd be going. Will you be telling your mother about this?
'No, I'll just leave a note. I think it's best she doesn't know directly from me. I don't think she'd take it too well.' Her mother was currently down at the shops picking up a few early morning things.
Stefi picked up a pencil from the kitchen table and hurriedly scrawled a note.
Gone for a walk for a few days.
Taking the ferrets. Don't worry. I'll be fine.
She put the note on the table where her mother would see it and headed for the door. Hanging on a hook were her ferrets' two leads and walking harnesses which her father had made her when she first got the ferrets. She knew she probably wouldn't need them but slipped them into her back pocket all the same. The ferrets were behaved and didn't need them very often anyway.
With a heavy heart she pushed open the front door and started walking down the dirt road and away from the house where she'd spent her whole life and that she hoped to see again.
'Damn!' she said, struck by a sudden thought. 'If I go down the main road, I could be seen!'
In a small town like Sumarana everyone knew everyone, and if anyone saw her at all her mother would be on her like a ferret on wheatgerm oil. She broke into a quick jog and headed towards the Sumarana forest a short distance from the town. The next town along the road was Shiro, nestled in the outskirts of the wide ranging forest. If she stayed close to the road but inside the forest she'd be fine. Hopefully.
Where're we going now? Gemmie asked as she trotted along behind Stefi.
'Into the forest so we won't be seen,' she said. She reached the forest and slipped quietly into its shadowy fringes. She hoped to reach the town of Shiro by nightfall, but before she carried on she took a minute to turn back around and reflect on her decision.
Her path would be a difficult one, she was sure of that. It was paved with uncertainties. Were the Feretos nice? Was the journey safe? But she did know one thing.
Like the cracks in the ceiling, her journey would take her many places before its end.